January 15, 2013

2012: The Year Solar Turned the Corner?

I think we can proclaim that 2012 was the year we turned the corner and caught a glimpse of what high-penetration solar looks like. Defined from an engineering perspective, a circuit has reached “high penetration” when utility engineers determine that upgrades need to be made to the circuit before additional generation can be installed. If we look…

I think we can proclaim that 2012 was the year we turned the corner and caught a glimpse of what high-penetration solar looks like. Defined from an engineering perspective, a circuit has reached “high penetration” when utility engineers determine that upgrades need to be made to the circuit before additional generation can be installed. If we look closely at the policy actions that were taken last year, we can see solar leaders focusing less on incentives and more on technical and procedural issues to accommodate higher levels of growth. And it’s no surprise why. Total distributed solar installations, not counting big utility projects connecting to transmission lines, have nearly quadrupled in just the past three years, climbing from 1143 MW in 2009 to roughly 4300 MW in 2012. Here’s a quick recap of some of 2012’s trends.

Interconnection – The huge growth in solar installations over the past few years has steered several states toward reexamining aspects of their interconnection procedures. In some areas, solar generating capacity on individual distribution circuits has reached penetration levels that approach or exceed the 15 percent penetration screen that is ubiquitous in state and federal procedures. This increased solar penetration has the ability to kick even small, mostly non-exporting projects over to burdensome, costly interconnection study process.

As a result, IREC has been working in several states (namely California, Hawaii and Massachusetts) that have revised their 15 percent penetration screen to provide easier approval processes for applications that would likely have no adverse impacts on the grid. These states and others are also paying more attention to technical screens, timelines and procedural efficiency as utilities strive to accommodate greater numbers of applicants and substantial upgrades to the distribution grid. To incorporate and promote some of these important efficiency provisions, IREC is currently updating its Model Interconnection Procedures, which will be published soon.

Net metering – For another indicator of the success of solar, several states went through the process of increasing or evaluating their participation caps for net metering: California dramatically expanded its net metering cap; Massachusetts worked to clarify terms and conditions of net metering; New York increased the limit for one utility and is considering an increase for other utilities; and New Jersey is currently bumping up against its net metering participation trigger of 2.5 percent.

We can also look to the surge of states, Louisiana, California, and Vermont to name a few, which are evaluating the effect that successful net metering programs have on ratepayers and utility revenues. In response to this trend, early last year, the Solar America Board of Codes and Standards (Solar ABCs) published A Generalized Approach to Assessing the Rate Impacts of Net Energy Metering to shed some light on this evaluation process for commissions and utilities. IREC is also in the midst of preparing another report on net metering valuation, which should be out this summer. What are these reports and studies uncovering? For the large part, they are finding that net metering is still a relatively low-cost option to spur further development of distributed generation (although Louisiana seems less convinced than others at this point).

Community Solar – Not surprisingly, community solar continued to expand in multiple directions in 2012, proving to be an elegant solution to the geographic and operational limitations inherent to solar energy. There are numerous barriers to hosting a renewable energy system, including shaded or structurally unsound roofs, a lack of roof ownership or access to roof space, or simply a lack of interest or ability to operate and maintain an onsite system. Community solar is beginning to unlock this untapped potential, which represents well over two-thirds of the potential solar market.

In 2012, IREC was active in helping Colorado implement a community solar gardens (CSG) statute through rulemaking participation. Statewide enabling legislation like Colorado’s has spurred widespread innovation and development across the United States as investor-owned, municipal and cooperative utilities, as well as towns, counties and private developers, now have the ability and incentive to design programs. Interest in community solar continues to flourish in Colorado, where at least 10 CSG programs have sprouted, with more on the way. As the concept continues to reach new states and locales, programs are building and improving on the experience of others. Given the momentum, we can expect community renewables to have quite a positive impact on the solar market in the coming years.

Solar-compatible Policies – In addition to interconnection, net metering, and community solar, we have seen more evidence of other solar-compatible initiatives take root in the past year, which have also served to increase the benefits and deployment of solar. For example, according to a December Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) report, a survey indicated that, between 2010 and 2012, potential peak reduction resulting from demand response (DR) initiatives in the U.S. increased by 25 percent, or more than 10,000 Megawatts. FERC often notes that DR plays an important role in integrating variable sources of renewable generation, and in maintaining system security in constrained areas.

Additionally, as renewable energy penetration increases, so does interest and demand for energy storage to complement and level out variable resource generation from solar, wind and other renewables. Last year, California continued to explore whether or not there should be a “portfolio standard” for energy storage technologies in the state. In Hawaii, a Public Utilities Commission working group identified energy storage as one of several grid additions that would prove useful in integrating large amounts of new renewable resources. And finally, the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities initiated a major new investigation into grid modernization, in which we expect energy storage to play a significant role.

It’s always exciting to look back and see how far we’ve come over the coursse of a year. It hopefully provides a little insight into what kind of changes we can expect around the corner in 2013. As solar installation prices continue to decline (at least relative to increasing energy prices elsewhere), financial incentives will likely ramp down or be phased out, which we are already seeing in many areas.

In the coming era of solar, we can imagine a continued trend in this direction, with more policies that determine the real-time value to the grid that renewable energy technologies provide. That value will vary from one utility to the next, but IREC expects that in general, studies will show that there’s a bright future for solar energy and other renewables. IREC will continue to work in these important policy arenas, to ensure that change is moving in the right direction and keeping up with market developments on the ground.